Orthodoxy, Feminism, and Me, 1997-2007
This post has been much harder to organize and write than I initially anticipated. I had to excise huge chunks of it and set them aside for a later post. Many of the paragraphs that escaped the chopping block could be their own posts. This post feels more personal than many others that I've written, and also more important. I do not even attempt to hide my disappointment in various facets of Orthodox Judaism. I'm not so comfortable with publicizing some of these views and decade-old disappointments, but it seems like the right time in my life to start vocalizing these concerns. So, here goes nothin'.
But, first, I want to state that I reserve the right to change any opinion I express here or have expressed in the past. I'm not a terribly wishy-washy person nor do I make 180 degree changes overnight, but I do relish the process of remaining open to changing in response to life experiences, so if you want to know what I think today, ask me today.
Whether I currently identify with JOFA or not, without JOFA and the vision of its founders, the phrase "Orthodox feminism" would probably still draw the blank stares of miscomprehension that it drew in 1997. It is hard for me to evaluate whether Orthodox feminism has changed drastically over the past ten years or it is merely I who have undergone changes. Over the past ten years, I went from being a self-righteous, indignant, naive, idealistic (typical) 17-year-old to a more relaxed, cynical, and probably jaded 27-year-old. Yet I also have the sense that over the past ten years, Orthodox feminism has also matured and mellowed a little bit for the better. Maybe some of you who live outside my head can help me make the distinction.
I. JOFA 1997
As mentioned in this post from February, I went to my first JOFA conference as a senior in high school. At that time, I had only been to women's tefilla a handful of times for bat mitzvahs and wasn't sure how I felt about it. (That is, I was either indifferent or anti. The girls I knew who had women's tefilla bat mitzvah services seemed to be doing so because that was what their mothers wanted.) I was very into learning, and had been for close to two years. I was adamantly Orthodox and would not consider egalitarian practices that were not accepted as halachic by Orthodox Jews, specifically Orthodox rabbis, as authentic in the least. Almost all of my limudei kodesh teachers were male.1 I had been committed to political and some forms of social feminism since around 8th grade. I struggled valiantly with religious and theological issues great and small. I read Blu Greenberg's On Women & Judaism, and, although I appreciated it, I felt that it was written in a different time and place and for a different audience. I was pretty sure that nobody in the history of the universe had been as conflicted about Judaism and feminism as I was. What can I say? I was 17.
And then I went to the first JOFA conference and I felt like I had come home! I had never met so many learned women! I had never met so many adults who seemed to struggle as I did! In my real community at home, I felt like everyone around me had it all "figured out," but here, very few people had it "figured out." But I was very frum, and very defensive against anyone who so much as insinuated that Orthodox feminists wanted to change halacha in any meaningful way. No, I insisted, all they wanted to do was be able to learn and maybe pray together without having to stand behind a mechitza. They just wanted to do what was allowed. Was it too much to ask of the rabbis?
In 2002, reflecting on my experiences at the 1997 JOFA conference, I wrote:
I would characterize my seventeen year-old self as idealistic. I knew that there were problems with being a feminist and a Jew committed to traditional halacha, but I also felt that by learning Torah and becoming enfranchised, as it were, through the ability to give psak, women could rectify all the inequality that generations of male poskim had bestowed upon us. I wholeheartedly accepted the premise that since Torah was true, it could not ultimately conflict with other things that I knew to be true. Time would heal all wounds inflicted by the clash between Torah and feminism.
The [first] JOFA conference strengthened these views. It was the first time I was somewhere with other people who knew of my wounds, who understood the apparent conflict between feminism and halacha and weren't scared of discussing it. I was awed to be in the presence of so many learned women. I was gratified to be able to learn some Gemara from a [woman] for the first time in my life. The conference opened up entire vistas...for me, and stirred me to write earnest essays [that move] me to this day.
II. JOFA 2002
I wrote the following in response to the 2002 JOFA conference a few days after I attended it. It sums up how I changed in the first five years after the first JOFA conference better than I ever could today. I wrote:
It just became clear to me that I will have to write a separate post about the post-high school year in Israel, possibly in reaction to this Jewish Week article, covering Emily Shapiro Katz's session at the 2007 JOFA conference that I unfortunately missed, and this blog post in response. It--the post-high school year in Israel--is lunacy on several levels, and I don't see the situation improving any time soon. I did, overall, enjoy myself tremendously, though, and I don't regret going. (After reading this post, whether my parents regret sending me, at great expense, is another story.)
It was so hard to accept the blatantly unequal and inferior education offered to women at [elsewhere] as compared to my [co-ed day school]-educated peers at [any of several hesder yeshivot they attended]. I couldn't believe it. I spoke to my male friends who were at yeshivot that I had been told would be somewhat comparable to mine. When they were unhappy in their shiurim, they could switch into more serious, more challenging, or more articulate ones. It was accepted as a given that they would learn Gemara five times a week and study Tanach and halacha and whatever else they wanted in the afternoon or evening. It was a given that they would always have more learned people to turn to when they stumbled upon some inexplicable line in whatever they were learning.
I had no such options. I was at the only post-high school program where women could learn Gemara seriously at all. Perhaps I wasn't forthright enough in my complaints, but when I expressed dissatisfaction with our measly thrice-weekly Gemara shiur, I was told that the world wasn't ready for women to learn more Gemara. [I wanted it five mornings a week instead of three, because between Wednesday and the following Monday, I'd forget things and have to do so much review on Monday that it was like I only had two actual gemara shiurim/chavruta periods a week. I was recently reminded that about five of us in the top shiur wanted Gemara to happen five mornings a week instead of three, and we were collectively turned down and told that if stayed for shana bet (a second year), maybe we could do that. None of us stayed shana bet.] When I felt that the person teaching my Gemara shiur was not taking my questions seriously or was unable to answer them, I...moved into a lower shiur where I was able to learn more.
It was also at [that institution in Israel] that I was first forced to come to terms with the inability of women to form a self-sufficient prayer community. I had loved davening since sometime in the fifth grade; I had been davening daily since sometime during high school and...three times a day since sometime in the eleventh or twelfth grade. I had been lucky to be able to easily attend daily minyan two or three times a day whenever I was at school. When I was at Drisha the previous summer, I sometimes went to morning minyan at the local shteibl, [and] usually davened mincha in the non-minyan in the Drisha beit midrash. It didn't really bother me then, but when I got to [seminary in Israell] and realized that I would not be able to daven with a minyan unless I trudged up the street to the local shul, where I could daven on the side of the room behind a thick mechitza, it began to sink in. When selichot were said in the shul, the first minyan wasn't done in time for the second minyan to begin, so the men davened in the shul's beit midrash and the women davened outside. I was one of two or three yeshiva3 students who continued to attend minyan regularly once Yom Kippur was over. I went two, three, or four times a week.
But I was always on the outside, looking in. It wasn't my community, the one that I trudged up the dusty street to. My community couldn't really daven together, as a unit, unless we convinced some of the rebbeim to come and daven with us, as was often done on Rosh Chodesh....A community that learns together but does not daven together is less of a community. After that year was over, abandoning the [Orthodox] community in which I had been raised seemed like a live option to me in a way in which it had not before.
...Wholehearted faith in the promise of Modern Orthodoxy—that conflicts could be resolved in time and that wounds could be healed—was replaced by a mixture of repulsion and cynicism towards the movement that had so soundly rejected my youthful idealism. It had always been important to me to be part of a faith community, a community that believed in something larger than itself, larger than fashion and movies and football. But if the community didn't want me, and it didn't seem to want me, I didn't know if I wanted it. It will never again be clear to me that I belong in Orthodox Judaism at all. [Part of this was youthful angst, but part of it was definitely a rational disappointment in the institutions that had raised me up as a model of what Modern Orthodoxy was supposed to be and then cast me down when I asked for more Torah. Perhaps if I had been raised to expect less, I would have been less disappointed.]
Then I came to college. It was at college that I discovered that serious intellectual stimulation was possible outside of a blat Gemara, that there were people entirely outside of the Jewish community who embodied the values that had always been important in my life, and that one could live a long time without ever considering a halachic question at all. I experimented with going on a davening diet, reducing my prayer intake to a few short occasional mincha-moments. I dispensed with brachot and strict adherence to kashrut. A friend of mine died during my junior year and that was what finally pushed me to the limits of my abandonment of Judaism.... During my freshman year, when I still went to [shacharit at the] daily minyan, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth and the distinct impression that Orthodox men identified no more strongly with the values important to me than did my Christian lacrosse-playing classmates in my expository writing class.4 The only emotionally and intellectually-stimulating conversations that I was having were outside of the context of Hillel, far away from shul and beit midrash.
And that was where the essay ended, there at 1:53 am, in November 2002.
Something that I didn't mention there at all, but that I think is and was a very important part of my growing disenchantment with Orthodoxy, were my academic studies. Through them, I learned to read texts critically, which I don't think was ever a part of my Jewish education, since reading texts critically opens the possibility for doubt, and doubt is antithetical to the Orthodox educational system. Of course I had developed my own private doubts in high school, but when I took them to teachers I respected, I was promised that I would eventually figure things out and that learning would help. In my academic studies, I was also exposed to a framework for thinking about gender outside of a Jewish context really for the first time in my life. This is also probably a separate post.5
III. JOFA 2004
I half-heartedly attended the 2004 JOFA conference, but I joked with a friend that as a post-Orthodox person, I didn't really belong there.6 The phrase "Orthodox feminism" seemed irrelevant to me, but not because feminism was irrelevant. Orthodoxy, as currently practiced by most Orthodox Jews, just seemed so...passe? Retro? Silly? Short-sighted? Cruel? Myopic? Pick your own negative adjective. I knew that Torah was bigger than Orthodox Judaism, and pretending otherwise seemed sort of silly. I was also tired of this business of begging the rabbinic establishment to let us do things, as if they held exclusive keys to the kingdom of God. We all spoke to God every day. Why did they have the monopoly?
I had also come to the conclusion, at some point in college, that Judaism was so inherently patriarchal and unfair to women that it couldn't be fixed. We could accept it as patriarchal or we could chuck it, but putting band-aids on a religion revealed through/developed by (pick your hashkafa) exclusively men by letting women lead davening seemed, well, like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound.
I didn't really have a solution, though. I went through most of the motions of Shabbat and kashrut, but I won't say I was really into it.
IV. JOFA 2007
In the three years since then, mostly as a result of having left college behind for good, grown up some, and come to terms with the difficulty of creating community in a world full of busy, autonomous adults, I've sort of come back into the Orthodox fold, although I doubt I'll ever be overly-enamored of the community.
Someone I dated once observed that fitting into the Orthodox world is not high on my list of priorities in life, and I agreed wholeheartedly. If I have a religious, communal priority in life, it is to become integrated into a community of religious thinkers, seekers, believers, prayers, learners, and doers that welcomes me as a full-fledged member and a thoughtful human being. That has not been my experience in any Jewish community populated exclusively by Orthodox people. I feel lucky to live in a somewhat post-denominational
world city community on the Upper West Side, where one can be "flexidox" or "observant" or "religious" without feeling straight-jacketed into an Orthodox way of viewing Judaism and the world.
I will say, though, that minyanim like Darkhei Noam and KOE have made it possible for me to continue davening with Orthodox (though not only Orthodox) people. Getting back into the old joie de learning first by taking a gemara class at Drisha and more recently by learning Masechet Makot with BZ and blogging about Torah has helped me feel more kindly towards Torah.
So where does this all leave me?
Well, it leaves me having wanted to go to the 2007 JOFA conference, to the extent that I was willing to get up at the ungodly hour of 6:3o am to get there in time to volunteer to register people. It left me truly wanting to attend many of the sessions that took place at the conference. (One day, please God, I will be a millionaire, and I will be able to attend the entire day, rather than volunteering for the first half in order to go to the second half for free.)
Refreshingly, the topics covered at the 2007 JOFA conference accepted as a given that:
- there are going to be lots of smart women learning lots of Gemara
- qualified women are beginning to give psak. Maybe only one or two now, maybe only in specific areas (niddah, medical ethics), maybe only for their own students or congregants, but more soon enough, and eventually on a communal level
- men are interested in women's equality and active participation in Jewish communal life (I think that this--"Feminist Sensitive Education for Boys in Israel," with Rabbi Jeremy Stavisky--would have been unheard of in 1997, but there are many other examples)
- philosophy of halacha and what gives halacha authority are important (possibly more important than ritual changes, which I think were much more of the focus in 1997)
It is also not clear to me what will ultimately happen with partnership minyanim.7 Are they a stepping stone to fully egalitarian davening or are they just going to make me and all of my co-daveners no longer kosher to most of Orthodox Judaism? I will admit that I don't really care if the latter happens, since I don't have a strong sense that they consider me one of their own anyway.8
Most importantly from my perspective, I think we're finally starting to recognize some of the severe limitations of our revered Modern Orthodox institutions--day schools, seminaries, and yeshivot--in terms of what they're teaching girls and young women, and boys and young men.
I think that there is less anger and more learning now, as well as a broader range of halachic and sociological possibilities. Anger has a useful place, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if we will someday have to reach back into that pot of seething rage to get to a place of greater equilibrium in the constant balancing act between Orthodoxy, which prides itself on being hierarchical, and feminism, which is based on a model of collaboration, cooperation, and consensus-building.
Overall, I feel that things are heading in the right direction, although the farther we travel along this path, the more work we see ahead of us.
JOFA, chizki v'imtzi!
1. Thus, I didn't really have any religious female role models at school. From 7th-12th grade, I had one female Navi teacher and one female Chumash teacher for a total of three classes out of at least eighteen limudei kodesh classes--I'm not counting Modern Hebrew.
2. I have replaced the names of any institution that I had anything negative to say about with generic descriptions in brackets. I don't wish any harm on any of them, and I don't want people Googling them to end up here. Maybe they have changed for the better. I also broke up some chunky paragraphs, but otherwise, everything remains the same. As is customary, anything in brackets was added by me and in some cases, replaces what was there before.
3. I referred to seminary students as yeshiva students, and still do, but mostly only in my head these days, since most people hear "yeshiva" and think "male."
4. We sat and ate breakfast together and learned a perek of Tanach every morning, but soon talk turned to jokes of "co-ed naked davening" and insinuations about freshman women being fresh meat, ripe for the taking. It wasn't all bad--there were moments of great supportiveness from the Orthodox davening community in college. But there were also a lot of moments of great irritation.
5. I'll just say that when I went to a brief women's learning program in Israel the summer after my freshman year in an attempt to revive the joie de learning that I had enjoyed earlier in my (young) life, I realized that everything they (they = the ones pushing shana bet and Stern) had said was true: Going to a secular college would ruin your view of the infallability of Torah. My conclusion, though, was not that I should stay in a cloistered religious setting forever, but that I should seriously question any belief system that could not stand up to freshman-level college courses. Many of you will be happy to know that Torah (ultimately) mostly withstood the test of a joint degree in History and Women's Studies. (The attempt at reviving joie de learning, however, did not work. All I remember from the learning program that summer was that the Rambam says that it's assur to hug your brother (negiah issues).)
6. I really like the term post-Orthodox. Don't get me wrong--I'm still pretty frum. But I will never again be frum in quite the same way that I was frum as a fire-and-brimstone 17-year-old high school senior, and I mostly think that's a good thing, but all of my current beliefs are predicated on having once been that way. Hence the significance of being post-Orthodox as opposed to just post-denominational or non-denominational or observant or whatever other label you want to slap on me. I feel sad that a lot of post-Orthodox people have given up on Judaism as a religion altogether. Torah is great, and Orthodox Jews don't have any kind of monopoly on it, regardless of what they might tell you.
7. I think that this is sort of a stupid term, no offense intended to its originator, but I don't have anything better unless you think chatzi-egal is better. Some people I know call them that. Or quasi-egal, but the half-Hebrew, half-English term is more fun.
8. Dude, I wear pants, might not cover my hair after marriage, have read the Christian Bible, and minored in Women's Studies, a.k.a. how to tear down the supporting structures of the world as we know it--the All Powerful Patriarchy. (I only stuck the Christian Bible bit in there because I once met some Orthodox people--Modern Orthodox, on the Upper West Side--who were shocked--shocked!--that I had read it. They were also, oddly enough, apparently jealous. So I let them borrow my New Revised Standard. We no longer call it the New Testament in academic circles, by the way, since that implies a Christian-centric view of the Bible. We say Christian Bible or Jewish Bible.)
I drew up this quick list as an exercise when I was struggling to articulate and organize this post. Although I didn't end up organizing it along these lines, I still find the list interesting.
How Orthodox feminism has changed since 1997
- women's tefilla is no longer cutting edge
- women's learning is seen as a beginning, not as the end of anything
- "parternship minyanim" exist
- women have positions of religious leadership in halachic contexts that were unthinkable five years ago
- more thought is being directed at how young girls and boys are taught
- feminism is being seen as a force for good outside the walls of the shul or beit midrash; the discussion has broadened to include other pedagogical issues and political issues, as well as more theoretical issues such as the nature of halakhic authority
- Orthodox feminists aren't the only ones publicly decrying the agunah situation
- more men are speaking up as supporters of women's learning and leadership
- there were a lot more younger women teaching and leading sessions at the JOFA conference than there were ten years ago (younger = within ten or fifteen years of my age, i.e., women in their 20s-30s)
- it is no longer greeted with a hue and cry from the roshei yeshiva of YU (maybe because they are no longer paying attention, not because they are complicit, but why aren't they paying attention?)
- agunot are still a burning problem
- people (by which I mean Orthodox Jews) are still reluctant to call themselves feminists
P.P.S. Other bloggers' reactions to the 2007 JOFA conference can be found here and here. Probably in other places, too.
[Part of this was youthful angst, but part of it was definitely a rational disappointment in the institutions that had raised me up as a model of what Modern Orthodoxy was supposed to be and then cast me down when I asked for more Torah. Perhaps if I had been raised to expect less, I would have been less disappointed.]
This describes my disillusionment with the Reform movement as well. (Except it sounds like at least one sex was getting what they wanted where you came from.)
I think that this is sort of a stupid term, no offense intended to its originator, but I don't have anything better unless you think chatzi-egal is better. Some people I know call them that. Or quasi-egal, but the half-Hebrew, half-English term is more fun.
Call it whatever you want, as long as you don't call it "halachic egalitarian"!
(I've also heard these minyanim described as "I can't believe it's not egal", and when Darkhei Noam started and didn't have a name yet, someone referred to it as "the Ortho-Hadar", though that name may be less apt as the communities have taken different paths.)
As it should, mind you. The question of a woman's role can't be simply confined to shul. As you point out, there's a mental counting of heads - are the female teachers teaching Chumash? Navi? Fine. But what about Gemara?
Finding an Orthodox education for my boys that teaches them also that women are equal religious partners? Not in Boston.
I hate to break this to you, but the particular Orthodox school of which you speak is better than many others as far as women's issues go. That doesn't mean that there isn't still a lot of room for growth, of course. The only schools that I can think of that have actual women teaching actual Gemara are SAR (in Riverdale) and possibly Flatbush (in Brooklyn--I know they used to have someone, but don't know the current status of that). In fact, I only know of a few other high schools of any kind (Conservative, community, etc.), where women teach Gemara. So, if that's your criteria, you're kind of stuck. The school of which you speak in Boston (my alma mater) has many advantages over other Modern Orthodox schools, including having many women teach Torah to boys and having boys and girls study the exact same curriculum. Growing up cloistered as I was in Boston, I had no idea that there was even an issue of women studying Gemara seriously, which is part of why I had the problems that I did in Israel. Others who grew up, say, in New York, and knew that there were schools where girls didn't learn Gemara (or even attended the schools themselves) had, from a young age, internalized Gemara as a boy's thing. I was lucky never to have that.
If you had daughters, I would advise you to send them to Drisha in the summer to innoculate them with the notion that women are full and active participants in all areas of Jewish literary and scholarly life. Unfortunately, with boys, I'm not sure there's really any place at all that they can learn that while still in high school. Perhaps by attending community lectures at Maayan...
which summarizes simply (I hope) Rabbi Mendel Shapiro's halachik analysis of women's Tefilah group.
Enjoyed your post.
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I think that Rabbi Mendel Shapiro writes about the new semi-egalitarian "partnership" minyanim, not about "women's tefilla groups," which don't include men at all. If he mentions them in the article, I don't think he really discusses their halakhic status.
I think that the quest for identity is a lifetime journey. But in this search for identity, we shall not get lost. No matter who we are and what we believe in, we shall remember that we are Jewish women above all. This is our original and everlasting identity. This is why, when I prevaricate about my "true" self, I always go back to my roots, as a Jewish woman nekuda.
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